Tag Archives: linguistics

Turn-of-phrase inflation.

The etymology of “the whole nine yards” is a total mystery. Anybody who tells you that they know its origin is either lying or unknowingly parroting an urban legend. The number of feet of fabric required to make a suit? Number of cubic yards of soil removed to dig a grave? Number of cubic yards of cement that fits in a mixer? The length of a WWII-era ammunition belt? Nope, none of those are it. The earliest known use of the phrase was in 1962, but now there’s been a trio of new discoveries from 1921 and 1912. Why weren’t they found before? Because the phrase was “the whole six yards.” The number was inflated over the years, much as “cloud seven” became “cloud eight” and is now “cloud nine.” The origin of the phrase is still unknown, but one potentially important clue is found in the pair of 1912 uses—both were in Kentucky. 

Links for May 13th

  • New York Times: Vitaly Borker of DecorMyEyes Pleads Guilty
    You'll remember this jackass as the guy who ran a series of scam businesses, physically threatened anybody who complained, and bragged to the Times that he loved web-based complaints because they helped his Google ranking. He received the Google death penalty a few days later, he was arrested within a week or so, and was held in jail until last month. The guy's out on a $1M bond, barred from the internet and with a guard at his door.
  • Reuters: Pornography found in bin Laden hideout
    Oh, this is going to be good.
  • Wikipedia: Paraprosdokian
    A figure of speech where the end of the sentence causes the reader to reevaluate the beginning of the sentence is known as a "paraprosdokian." Examples include "I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it" (Groucho Marx), "if all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised" (Dorothy Parker), and "I haven't slept for ten days, because that would be too long" (Mitch Hedberg).

Links for March 8th

It’s all X to me.

In English, when we want to describe something as incomprehensible, we might say “it’s all Greek to me.” From the always-excellent Strange Maps comes a diagram of what language people use in place of “Greek” depending in their native tongue. Romanians say “it’s all Turkish to me,” while Turks say “it’s all French to me,” who say “it’s all Hebrew to me,” who say “it’s all “it’s all Chinese to me,” who say “it’s all Heavenly Script to me.” The Greeks only come in second; most of the world is seemingly baffled by Chinese, though I suspect that owes more to centuries of Silk Road trade than anything else.

While you’re on Strange Maps, check out their 1861 map of West Virginia, when it was known as “Kanawha.”